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updated: 6/18/2012 9:16 AM

Rodney King, key figure in L.A. riots, dead at 47

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  • Rodney King, shown in April 2012, the black motorist whose 1991 videotaped beating by Los Angeles police officers was the touchstone for one of the most destructive race riots in the nation's history, has died, his publicist said Sunday.

      Rodney King, shown in April 2012, the black motorist whose 1991 videotaped beating by Los Angeles police officers was the touchstone for one of the most destructive race riots in the nation's history, has died, his publicist said Sunday.
    Associated Press File Photo

  • Rodney King, whose videotaped beating by police in 1991 led to LA race riots, has died at age 47.

      Rodney King, whose videotaped beating by police in 1991 led to LA race riots, has died at age 47.
    Associated Press, July 1992

  • Rialto police detective Carla McCullough, right, and a photographer conduct an investigation at Rodney King's home in Rialto, Calif., Sunday. King's fiancee called police to report that she found him at the bottom of the swimming pool at their home in Rialto, police Lt. Dean Hardin said.

      Rialto police detective Carla McCullough, right, and a photographer conduct an investigation at Rodney King's home in Rialto, Calif., Sunday. King's fiancee called police to report that she found him at the bottom of the swimming pool at their home in Rialto, police Lt. Dean Hardin said.
    Associated Press

  • Rodney Hughes, 21, spoke about his late father Rodney King who was found dead Sunday at age 47 after he was pulled from the bottom of his swimming pool.

      Rodney Hughes, 21, spoke about his late father Rodney King who was found dead Sunday at age 47 after he was pulled from the bottom of his swimming pool.
    Associated Press

 
Associated Press

LOS ANGELES -- Just a few months ago, Rodney King was once again the center of attention as the world checked back in on the man whose videotaped beating by police sparked one of the nation's worst race riots.

King had left Los Angeles behind, moving an hour east to a home where neighbors would often hear him splashing in the pool late at night.

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The scars from the more than 50 baton blows -- those both inside and out -- remained, but King struck an upbeat note on his life.

"America's been good to me after I paid the price and stayed alive through it all," he told The Associated Press. "This part of my life is the easy part now."

But King was found around 5:30 a.m. Sunday at the bottom of the swimming pool at his Rialto, Calif. Home.

His death at age 47 is being treated as an apparent drowning and there are no signs of foul play, but Capt. Randy De Anda said autopsy results would be needed to determine whether drugs or alcohol were a factor.

The autopsy is set for Monday.

De Anda said King was only in the water three to four minutes between the time his fiancee called 911 and when officers arrived and pulled him from the water. He was taken to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 6:11 a.m.

It was a grim end for King, who became a symbol for police brutality but struggled with addiction and repeated arrests. Long after the $3.8 million he'd been awarded in a civil case was spent on record label and other failed ventures, King would periodically resurface, appearing on "Celebrity Rehab" or sparring in the occasional boxing match. He spent the last months of his life promoting a memoir he titled "The Riot Within: From Rebellion to Redemption."

Sandra Gardea, King's next-door neighbor said that around 3 a.m., she heard music and someone "really crying, like really deep emotions. ... Like tired or sad, you know?"

"I then heard someone say, 'OK, Please stop. Go inside the house.' ... We heard quiet for a few minutes. Then after that we heard a splash in the back."

King was 25 years old and on parole for a robbery conviction when he led police on a high-speed chase in March 1991 that ended on a darkened Los Angeles street. He was finally stopped by four Los Angeles police officers who struck him more than 50 times with their batons, kicked him and shot him with stun guns. He was left with 11 skull fractures, a broken eye socket and facial nerve damage.

The violence was captured on videotape by a nearby resident, who turned it over to a TV station. It was played over and over for the following year, inflaming racial tensions across the country.

The images -- preserved on an infamous grainy video -- of the black driver curled up on the ground while four white officers clubbed him -- became a national symbol of police brutality in 1991. More than a year later, when the officers' acquittals touched off one of the most destructive race riots in history, his scarred face and soft-spoken question -- "Can we all get along?" -- spurred the nation to confront its difficult racial history.

It seemed that the videotape would be the key evidence to a guilty verdict against the officers, whose felony assault trial was moved to the predominantly white suburb of Simi Valley, Calif. Instead, on April 29, 1992, a jury with no black members acquitted three of the officers on state charges in the beating; a mistrial was declared for a fourth.

Rioting began immediately, starting in Los Angeles. It lasted for three days, killing 55 people, injuring more than 2,000 and setting swaths of Los Angeles aflame, causing $1 billion in damage. Police, seemingly caught off-guard, were quickly outnumbered by rioters and retreated. As the uprising spread to the city's Koreatown area, shop owners armed themselves and engaged in running gunbattles with looters.

"Through all that he had gone through with his beating and his personal demons he was never one to not call for reconciliation and for people to overcome and forgive," Rev. Al Sharpton said Sunday. "History will record that it was Rodney King's beating and his actions that made America deal with the excessive misconduct of law enforcement."

The Los Angeles Police Department, after the King beating and other scandals, has instituted new policies including community policing that have resulted in crime drops, but continued complaints about racial profiling. Many of the hardest-hit areas in South LA, like King, have struggled. In the area around the Florence and Normandie intersection that was one of the riot's flash points, high school dropout rates are higher than in the rest of the city and incomes remain dramatically lower than in other sections of Los Angeles.

In his autobiography, King described his uneasy feelings about the events of his life.

"For many years I felt that I had been involuntarily burdened as the victim and resultant universal symbol of police brutality," King wrote. "I wanted no part of it, just wanted to stay home, drink and watch TV. ... The fact that this footage was sent out to be viewed by the entire world certainly didn't help my recovery."

"We may be scarred," he wrote, "and we may not be able to forget, but we can keep going, one step at a time, until we get to a better place."

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